What’s your story?

The magical possibilities of combining rhythm and harmony

By Jon Liebman
Week of July 26, 2021

As you’re learning bass, keep in mind that bass players have dual roles, as we supply both rhythm and harmony. In fact, the bass is often described, aptly, as the bridge that connects both entities.

So how do we juggle both aspects of the job?

I happened to have a fascinating conversation recently with British session bassist Simon Goulding, published as this week’s FBPO interview, in which this very topic came up.

Simon likened constructing a good bass line to that of telling a good story, citing how all the bass greats do it. His perspective really resonated with me.

“All great bass lines tell a really great story,” says Simon. “People like Jamerson and people like Chuck Rainey and people like Abe Laboriel, all the great lines, iconic bass lines, Carol Kaye another one. They all tell a story because they all use great rhythmic foundations and great harmonic color in the line.”

So how does someone learn bass in a way that will lead to becoming a great storyteller on the instrument?

“I would say,” Simon continues, “really, what was drilled into me when I was learning and coming up in local bands, which is really understand the role of the bass in the band. Understand that it’s the bridge between the rhythm and the harmony. Really get to grips with both of those aspects, both of those elements. Get to know them like the back of your hand.”

While rhythm and harmony are different, conceptually, they do go hand in hand, especially when you’re a bass player. Diving into each aspect individually, then combining them with a great storytelling bass line, is a major part of what a bass player does. And, as always – here’s the most important part! – it’s about the song.

“What exactly can you play that is going to complement what the piano player or guitar player’s playing?” Simon says.

This intermingling of rhythm and harmony applies to soloing as well. Citing one of his early music teachers, Simon recalls learning “to look at improvising as kind of like a roadmap, where you start in one place and you need to get to another place, but you need to make it as interesting as possible. Kind of like having a bit of a conversation.”

Regardless of whether you’re laying down a bass line or taking a solo, having a strong grasp of rhythm and harmony, individually and jointly, will serve you well in your quest to learn bass.

“So,” Simon concludes, “I’d definitely say spend a lot of time learning rhythm and how it works, and a lot of time learning harmony and how that works.”

Great advice, indeed.

How about you? Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Simon here.

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